Letterman’s Top 10 Ways To Make Your College Application Essay Stand Out—and Mine

college application essay  

If you are a Letterman fan, you know that I am supposed to list these college application essay tips backwards, and end with No. 1. But I prefer chronological order. You can watch the YouTube video, where he has the young man, Kwasi Enin, who was accepted to all eight ivies this year, count them down on his show. Some media have tried to pin Kwasi’s success on his essay—but that is pure conjecture (Kwasi is amazing on many levels). Anyway, if you are college bound, you might get a kick out of watching the whole thing.

If you are shy on time, I wrote out Letterman’s list here. And then I wrote my own list below. His may be funny; but mine works!

David Letterman’s Top 10 Ways to Make Your College Application Essay Stand Out

1. In the part where it says, “Office Use Only,” write: “Accept.”

2. Personally give to dean at home in the middle of the night.

3. If you’ve been to space, mention that you’ve been to space. (more…)

More College Application Essay Tips from “Concise Advice” Author Robert Cronk

college application essay

In my previous post, I featured a question and answer session with author Robert Cronk, who wrote a popular writing guide on how to write narrative-style college application essays. I found Concise Advise, which directs students on how to use movie-script writing techniques to bring their essays to life, a helpful resource.

I invited him to share more of his advice and tips here on Essay Hell, and this is the second part. (Here’s Part One in case you missed it.):

Me: What do you think is the most important part of a college app essay?

Bob: To me, it’s the element of character development, or transition, or transformation, or realization of something, even in small ways.  The best essays start with a moment that led to that development and ends with a better, stronger, wiser person. (more…)

Think Movies! Another Great Way to Write Your College Application Essay

college application essay

I’m always on the lookout for great writing guides—especially books on how to write narrative, slice-of-life essays (like mine).

Only recently did I discover this book, Concise Advice, by Robert N. Cronk.

What I loved was that his approach was different than mine, but arrived at the same goal—a compelling college application essay that reveals the writer’s unique personality, character, passions, talents, goals, etc.

This is what I wrote about our two different approaches in a review for Amazon on the latest (third) edition of his book:

I was surprised at how similar this book was to mine, although it offered a different approach–and our goals were very similar. My guide steps students through the process of finding their defining qualities, and then looking for slice-of-life “moments” or “incidents” that illustrate that quality in a compelling way. I encourage them to look for “times” when they encountered some type of “problem,” and use that to show how they handled it and what they learned. The result are highly readable “narrative” essays that do a beautiful job of revealing what makes a student tick. (more…)

What Makes a College Application Essay “Great”?

Are you starting to think about writing your college application essay?

If so, you need to know what makes a great essay to know how to start brainstorming and writing your own.

You can often recognize a “great one” when you read or hear it—but it’s more difficult to explain what exactly made it that way.

Here’s my attempt to list the features that comprise a great college application essay.

Unlike other essays, these have a very specific goal that you must always factor in when you write a great one: To help your college application land in the “Yes!” pile.

Many of the elements of an effective college admissions essay further that goal.

A GRRRREATTT college application essay:

1. “Grabs” the readers at the start. I believe one of the best ways to do this is to start with an anecdote (real-life incident). Something happens.

2. Usually is written in a narrative (story-telling/memoir-like/slice-of-life) style drawing off real-life experiences.

3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality (creative, resourceful, fierce, resilient, driven, etc.) about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay. (more…)

SHOW the World You Come From


The University of California CHANGED its essay prompts for 2016-17.

Learn about the all-new requirements by clicking HERE!



How to Describe a Place
in a College App Essay

If you are applying to the University of California, you need to write two college application essays.

I wrote about how to Describe the World You Come From three years ago, explaining how to think about the first prompt and brainstorm ideas for your essay.

It would help you to read that advice first, then come back.

This time, I want to give you some ideas on how to SHOW the world you decide to write about when describing the setting of your world.

Since in the UC essay your world will be some type of community, I believe you might need to describe where  you experienced it. In writing, that’s called the setting.

If you want a powerful essay, you will use descriptive language, sensory details and specific examples to help us see your world. (more…)

Just How Creative Should You Get?

College Application Essays

Yes, You Can Go Too Far


Colleges are encouraging students to get creative with their essays.

This is great.

However, I think students should be careful of trying too hard to showcase their creative writing skills.

Rather, I believe they should put those creative writing tools to work to write an engaging, meaningful essay.

There’s a difference.

Some people think creative writing is a goal in itself.

They think it’s when a writer gets kind of wild, breaks the conventional English language rules, and cuts loose with what they have to say and how they say it.

The essays start to read more like rambling poetry.

The goal of a college application essay is not to create a “piece of creative writing.”

Instead, the goal is to use creative writing techniques to express yourself better.  (more…)

CBS Digs Essay Hell’s Topic Tips!


College Application Essays

Tips for Finding Topics That CBS Finds Worth Repeating

A couple days ago, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a journalist who covers college admissions issues for CBS, featured this blog in her column for MoneyWatch. How cool is that? She shared one of my previous posts that try to help guide students toward finding college application essay topics that don’t fall into the common traps, such as being cliche, too controversial or just plain dull. (more…)

The BIG Difference Between a Story and an Anecdote

College Application Essays:
What They Mean When They Ask for a Story

Most students have never written narrative essays, which are so different from most essays taught in English classes.

The classic 5-paragraph essay has a formal style, uses the third person, includes a main point or thesis statement in the introduction and has three supporting body paragraphs.

These college application (narrative) essays are the opposite.

The style is more casual, the structure looser and no one is counting the number of paragraphs.

They are told in the first-person and the main point is usually not stated directly, but implied by the essay itself.

What Is An Anecdote?

They are called “narrative” essays because they often use a story-like style—you are the narrator. (Many college counselors will advise you to “tell a story” in your essay. I do, too!)

However, there seems to be confusion between whether these narrative essays are the same as stories, or if they just contain mini-stories from real life. In general, they only contain small pieces of stories, called anecdotes.

These  are used in the introductions because they grab the reader’s attention with a compelling description of an interesting moment or experience.

However, the entire essay is not one complete story that starts at the beginning and runs through the entire piece until the end.

Writers start with an anecdote to engage the reader by describing a moment, which tries to illustrate a larger point in their essay.

The rest of the essay is used to explain the broader meaning of the anecdote.

I know it can be confusing.

But I think people who resist the idea of narrative-style writing in these essays don’t understand the difference, and think narrative means the essay relates one long story. It doesn’t.

The narrative, or story-like style that reads like fiction, is mainly used only in the beginning of these essays.  (In news or magazine stories, they are called anecdotal ledes.) The rest then shifts into a more explanatory mode.

So you do not want to tell one long story in your essay.

But you do want to look for mini-stories, or moments, or “times,” that you can relate as examples of something you want to illuminate in your essay.

In my new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, I explain how you can use a Show and Tell structure to write a compelling narrative essay about yourself. The first part, using an anecdote, is the Show part.

The second part, where you explain what the moment or experience meant, how you thought and felt about it, and what you learned, is the Tell part.

Find examples of narrative writing in college application essay in my favorite collections of sample essays.


Should You Choose Prompt 5 for Your Common App Essay? Maybe…

PLEASE NOTE! This prompt has changed for 2017-18. This post is now obsolete, although you can still find helpful general information on how to think about prompts and write your essays. 

The revised prompt 5 is: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

I will be writing a new post on how to address this revised prompt in upcoming weeks…stay tuned.

College Application Essays

Watch Out for Boy Scouts and Bar Mitzvahs in Prompt 5!


I’ve been dragging my heels about writing on this last option of the new Common Application prompts.

It’s not the worst one (I’m saving Prompt 3 for last), but I think you could easily ensnare yourself on this essay option:

Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The biggest pitfall could be if you choose a common accomplishment or event that could address this prompt, but not necessarily result in an interesting essay.

For example, some classic “transitions” into adulthood are graduations, birthdays (your big 16 or your quinceanera) or advancements within other groups, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, your church or volunteer organizations.

These are wonderful achievements, but they don’t necessarily translate into compelling essay topics.

Would you want to read about someone’s Eagle Scout project or their Bat Mitzvah?

Giant yawn!

 To find an interesting mini-story (also called an anecdote) about “a time” that marked your transition into the adult world, I would start trolling your past for any type of problems you have faced in recent years.

If you confronted and dealt with a difficult problem, chances are you grew up a little bit when you wrestled with it. Read more about how problems come in many shapes and sizes.

Look for an incident, issue or experience where you faced a challenge, an obstacle or something that was difficult to deal with, and share how you handled it, and what you learned from it.

While expressing what you learned from that experience, just make sure to link the lessons you learned to the idea of growing up, of maturing, of becoming more like an adult.

What qualities did you develop?

For example, did you start being more responsible?




Examine yourself to see if you changed in anyway from before the problem to after–and develop the idea of personal growth.

That way it will be clear that you addressed the prompt.

If you don’t want to focus on past problems, see if you have any smaller examples that could illustrate the process of growing up–and then use that simple example to expand into the large life lessons.

For instance, maybe your grandmother always made tortillas, and then when she passed away, you set out to learn how to make them yourself.

You could start your essay by describing a moment you watched your grandmother make them, or describe the steps you took to figure out how to make them yourself, and then talk about the larger lesson of learning from others, valuing the past or growing more aware of what really matters.

(Actually, even this example does involve a “problem”: You didn’t know how to make tortillas!)

This example would fall under the idea in the prompt of relaying a life transition involving a “culture,” and if you are fortunate enough to have a rich cultural heritage, I would definitely explore stories within that world.


One last way to think about this prompt is to try to find any times you were surprised by an event, activity or experience where you suddenly had to express more “mature” qualities, or make more “adult-like” decisions–and what you learned from that.

If you can find a twist to your response–something that we wouldn’t necessarily think would be a transition into adulthood that turned out to be one–all the better!

So now that I have thought more about this prompt, I’m liking it more than when I first read it. As long as you can try to find smaller, more unique or unexpected examples of these life transitions, I bet you can write some terrific essays!

Also, here’s my recent post on how to respond to Prompt 2 of the Common Application and how to respond to Prompt 1.

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with this prompt (as well as Prompts 1 and 2.). It costs <$10 and you can order using the button below.


Add to Cart





Five Golden Writing Nuggets

College Application Essays: Best Writing Advice

Five Hot Tips to Use on Your Essay


It’s hard to find good advice on writing. Here are five of my favorite tips from the best of the best:


Anne Lamott

1. If you are just starting to write your college application essay, take writer Anne Lamott’s advice and give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” This is how all writers work–and you should, too. Just get a loose plan, and then write. Get it all out. Don’t worry about finding the exact right words, or the correct spelling, or landing your commas in the right place. Just let it rip. You can go back later and worry about those details. (This doesn’t mean that you try to write a shitty rough draft; it just means that if your rough draft is shitty, that’s okay. You can edit it later.)

If you are one of those straight A, honors and AP class types, she’s probably talking to YOU:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

― Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Gary Provost via Punctuation.com


2.  So you have pounded out a rough draft, and you are trying to make your essay more engaging and readable. The easiest way to pick up the tempo is to go back and vary the length of your sentences. And include lots of short ones. Read this amazing paragraph by writing instructor Gary Provost to quickly see how this works:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

–Gary Provost



Mark Twain

3.  Here’s another way to clean up your essay and make it stronger. This advice is as brilliant as it is simple. I’m still learning to trim my adjectives, too. It’s hard to resist them. You think they make your nouns stronger, better, more accurate. But not always. Take it from the man who knows how to grab and punch you with his words. Here’s a sentence overdosing on adjectives: When I was in my darkened, unkept bedroom, I took my small, fluffy striped pillow and threw it out the square,screened-in window. The idea is if you take out a few of these adjectives, the others have more impact.

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.

― Mark Twain


Stephen King

4. Another type of word to avoid over using is the adverb. Those are words that mainly describe verbs, and usually end in -ly. Quickly, happily, stupidly, normally, angrily, etc. The idea is that we usually don’t need them to make our point. Here’s what horror writer Stephen King has to say about them:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

–Stephen King

If you want to read King’s entire diatribe about them, click this link. The idea is that when you proofread something you wrote, look for these and take them out if you use them too often.

Nora Roberts

5. Finally, if you want one of the best tips to writing–including your college application essay–try this one. Nora Roberts, a popular novelist, was asked about her key to success during an interview for a profile in The New Yorker magazine. Her answer? Ass in the chairThat’s right. Just sit down and write something. You don’t have to spend hours. Just start and write for fifteen minutes. Then come back the next day for a half hour. Before you know it, you will have a draft. It’s the same idea as putting on your running shorts to go for a run. Just do it.

If you want help starting your college admissions essay, try my Jumpstart Guide.